Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, by Will Hermes

If, like me, you've always harbored a fantasy about living in New York City in the 1970's, then this book is for you.  From the wee small hours of New Year's Day, 1973 to New Year's Eve, 1977, Will Hermes documents the music of the city.  Depending on your reading, you've probably heard some of it before, but it's doubtful that you've heard even most of it.  Yes, the book covers the rising punk scene at Max's Kansas City and CBGB, but also the DJ's spinning at underground gay bars and bath houses giving birth to disco culture, AND the Bronx block parties of DJ Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaata and Grandmaster Flash, AND the salsa scene centered around Fania records, AND the out-there jazz being played in downtown lofts, AND the minimalist composers like Phillip Glass and Steve Reich, AND the rise of Bruce Springsteen.  All this was happening at the same time, and these worlds were occasionally interacting.  Hermes provides a chronological account of all of it, plus the blackout, the crimewaves, the graffiti, the mayoral elections, the Son of Sam murders, the Yankees/Dodgers World Series, and everything else going on in the city.  There's an account of who was playing where each New Year's Eve, what each player experienced during the '77 blackout, how the Bicentennial was celebrated, and any time Dylan, the Stones, Miles or Bob Marley play in town.  And, as with Please Kill Me!, Hermes necessarily takes some time to check in with the parallel punk scene in the U.K. 

The choice of the timeline is a little arbitrary (cutting off at '77 means we miss out on the "No Wave" scene, for instance), and so is the choice of focus.  I would like to have seen, for instance, what was happening in the comedy clubs and at 30 Rock during these times, but hey, that's just my personal interest (I would also have appreciated more on KISS and The Cramps).  You could go pretty much infinitely in any direction with a book like this, so at some point you have to draw a border.

Putting these separate scenes into a chronology helps clarify some of the mythology built up over the years.  I had heard before a sort of hip hop creation myth that called Kool Herc's block parties a reaction to the downtown Manhattan disco scene: kids from the projects who couldn't get into the big discos just built their own.  But the timeline just doesn't add up: Herc was doing parties in 1973, about the same time something that could really be called a disco scene was being created in underground gay bars, years before Saturday Night Fever and Studio 54 brought about the disco scene that this myth seems to describe. 

You might say that this book takes the music scholarship of NYC in the 70's and begins to put it on par with how we view the music of the South.  It's long been understood that blues, gospel, country, jazz and what would become known as rock-n-roll all evolved side-by-side, often interacting, and that all these evolutions were shaped by forces of depression, migration, desegregation and Jim Crow.  Here we see a similar search for how sociological forces effected the development of the music.  My favorite example is the idea that the budding hip hop scene was given a boost by the '77 blackout, when kids across the Bronx looted sound systems and began to teach themselves to DJ.  Another example, which would be worth further research, is how the low rent seemed to foster a creative environment.  New York in the 70's was a crime ridden shithole.  Anyone with the means was getting the fuck out.  That meant that rent was absurdly low.  Several of the jazz players, for example, had rented large lofts where they could live, teach music lessons, and host shows at night.  Sam Rivers' space Studio Rivbea, and Rashid Ali's space, Ali's Alley are two examples.  Rashid Ali had a second floor loft where he lived, then rented out the space below when it was vacated by a local business and turned it into a performance space.  His total monthly rent was $200.  So you can imagine how little the rent for a rat- and roach-infested studio apartment might have been.  And with the cost of living that cheap, it's not hard to devote yourself to creative pursuits, or even to make a living through them.  What's not mentioned is the legality of those loft venues, something I'd be very interested in.  The city was going through bankruptcy.  Was there just not enough resources to go around shutting down illegal venues?  Or were the laws regarding public performance spaces much laxer then?  Not that the lack of enforcement was all sunshine and lollipops, as when a sleazy bathhouse called the Everhard Baths burned down in the summer of '77, killing nine people.  "The owner had been planning to get a sprinkler system installed the week after the fire."  At any rate, that seems like a line of research I'd like to see pursued further.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Stand Up Comedy

Stand Up 2013

March 29 at Flapers: Here's a whole set about getting older, fear of death and all that.

June 17: First video of me at Tao Comedy Studio!  This is a long routine about guns and the gun control debate.  I was still working it out, so it's a little rough, but I think it's a pretty good routine.

July 12 at Tao Comedy Studio: this is a mix of old and new material.  Some of this is very off-the-cuff.  After some one-liners and riffs, I talk about the difference between nerds and hipsters, preppers, not being a "fighter," and psychedelic mushrooms.

October 20 at the Ice House: Only a partial set, so you don't have to sit through the Pluto joke again.  The Noah bit has been my most well-received joke this year.  Jokes about God, Noah's Ark, teaching ESL.

December 15th at Flappers: Noah's Ark, The Letter C, Kanye West.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013: The Last Look Back

Well, that was a busy year.  And I feel pretty good about what we've accomplished.  The big event, of course, was opening Tao Comedy Studio, in a beautiful little space on Beverly Blvd. where Bobbie can teach her workshops, which also doubles as an underground performance space.  We've been hosting open mics there every Friday night, and doing shows on Saturdays.  Come out and check out the place!

In October, we went to our college homecoming, and I performed a 30 minute standup set, the longest I've yet done.  Meanwhile, Bobbie published her book, The Tao of Comedy: Embrace the Pause, and she has a new album available for download.  And we have some great things in store for 2014.  2013 was all about sewing seeds, dig?  Now let's watch them grow.

A few of my favorite things from 2013:

Maria Bamford - Ask Me About My New God
Maria was already in a league of her own, but she really upped her game on this CD.  Her comedy has never been this tight, this focused.  When you compare it to what a lot of big names are doing, they all seem like they're treading water.  I love Louis CK, and I admire that he's committed to doing a new hour from scratch every year, but I feel like this set really shows the advantages of taking time to cultivate your material.

The Julie Ruin - Run Fast
Kathleen Hannah and Kathi Wilcox return with a new band and an album full of catchy, bouncy, neo-new wave hits.  The title track, especially, almost makes me tear up.

The World's End
Generation X finally have our own The Big Chill.  Needless to say, ours is a lot more fun.

Kristen Schaal - Live at the Filmore
I laughed so many times watching this Andy Kaufman-esque comedy special.  I've never actually seen a performance of The Vagina Monologues, but Schaal's parody ("The Taintologues") is pretty much exactly how I always pictured it.

Affordable Care Act
Millions of Americans have gained access to the health insurance market.  That's gotta be on my list.

Woman Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge
One of my favorite underground comix creators of the 90's is back with a graphic novel biography of feminist activist/birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger?  FUCK YES.  Aside from being a fun read about a fascinating person, this book debunks a lot of the bullshit out there about Sanger.  You've probably heard all this stuff about her being a Nazi eugenicist who wanted to forcibly abort minorities, usually brought up in an effort to discredit Planned Parenthood, feminism, abortion or contraception.  My response to this was usually to say "Thomas Jefferson was a slave raper, does that discredit the Declaration of Independence?"  But Peter Bagge includes a lot of research in the introduction and footnotes that demonstrate that this stuff is all made up, based on misinterpretations of out-of-context bits of data.  Sanger was an awesome person (although she also happened to be anti-abortion).

Danaerys gets an army
THE most awesome moment of TV this year.

The Act of Killing
I'm not even sure how I feel about this incredibly disturbing documentary.  In Singapore, a military coup in the 60's led to the commitment of the most horrible of atrocities.  But the military regime is still in power today, and the killers are celebrated as national heroes.  Thus, no survivors will talk to the crew for fear of retribution.  So the crew punk'd the killers into documenting their own crimes, by having them stage and film reenactments in the style of the Hollywood films with which they are obsessed.  An incredibly powerful piece of cinema, although I can't quite decide if this power is being used or abused.

Run the Jewels
Killer Mike and El-P reteam for a free mixtape.  Harder than anything released for money this year.

The Man With Two Brains
I had seen this film from late in Steve Martin's "wacky" period once when it came out, and had vague memories (mostly of the sex jokes).  I caught it again this year, and those sex jokes really dominate the film.  Kathleen Turner plays a nightmare of masculine sexual anxiety: a sexy seductress who not only fucks rich guys to get at their money, but takes delight in being cruel to them.  She turns from fiery temptress to cold fish literally the moment she says "I do" (while still acting like a nymphomaniac toward any hot young guy that passes by).  It's a Freudian tableau as potent as Notorious, Baby Doll, or Good Morning And Goodbye. Or any Woody Allen movie.

John Oliver gets his turn at bat

The Knife - Shaking the Habitual
I love how this Swedish synth duo sounds so raggedy and cheap, not at all the precise machine-like stuff you associate with synths.  They're like the anti-Kraftwerk.

Room 237
A documentary about the hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  Are these people crazy, or just insightful?  Well, probably at least 75% crazy, but it's a fun trip nonetheless.

Sarah Silverman - We Are Miracles
It would have been very easy for Sarah Silverman to just come up with a new hour of Sarah Silverman jokes.  She's got a good formula, and I'm sure the jokes would have been hilarious.  She didn't really need to push herself.  But instead, she came up with this amazing hour of honest, singular, personal comedy.  

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Somehow, this movie just captures the feeling of being a teenager.  Not necessarily the reality, but this is how I remember high school feeling.

Kanye West - Yezus
I listened to it when it came out, thought it was OK.  Then there was the George Zimmerman trial, and the Paula Deen scandal, and as the summer went on, the mood of the country started getting angrier.  Buried canisters of racial tension began to leak to the surface.  By the time the summer ended, Yezus really seemed like the album of the moment: an angry rant fueled by justified grievances, but with the venom often misdirected.  It's not really a great album--it runs out of steam about halfway through, until the bizarre "Bound 2" grabs my interest again, but it just fits into it's time.

"Racist or Not Racist" on The Daily Show
Oh, I can't get the embed to work, here's the video.